Road Trip to Utah - part 3

I woke up just before the sun did, looking forward to our day's adventure. I like to sleep in a room that's a little bit cooler than my buddy Mike likes (he say's Eskimos would complain) so he always grabs all the blankets in the room and hides under them during the night. I fumbled my way to the bathroom and flipped on enough lights where I could see to turn on the heat so the room would be just short of hellish and I wouldn't have to listen to him bitching about the cold. The shower had plenty of hot water and nice, fluffy towels so I took my time conducting my morning ritual. 

Walking back into the room, there was no Mike up and at 'em, but there was a lump under the pile of covers on his bed so I grabbed the approximate place where I judged his toes to be and gave a good tug. "Get your butt out of bed, Dude, daylights a burning" A few mumbles of protest later, he crawled out.

While he took his turn in the shower, I spent the time outside standing on the 2nd floor walkway watching the new day be born as the sandstone hills behind the motel across from us changed from dark red to bright orange. This early in the morning, there wasn't much vehicle traffic, but I noted lot's of tourist-type businesses up and down Main Street. Nowadays, Moab is in the tourist business; its sole purpose seems to be in getting thousands of tourists each year to part with as much of their money as possible, but I thought of what Moab must have been like in years past.

In the 1830's and 1840's, travelers crossed the Colorado River just north of present-day Moab. In 1855, members of the Elk Mountain LDS Mission built a settlement here, but were soon driven out by Ute Indians who did not take kindly to uninvited outsiders taking over their land. In the 1870's after the Utes were driven away, a ragged collection of rustlers, drifters, outlaws and broken Civil War veterans began settling at the formerly abandoned site. Eventually, another group of Mormons came in and established a settlement with laws, homes and businesses.

Charlie Steen (file photo)
Moab continued to be a sleepy little hamlet miles from anywhere until 1952. It probably would have stayed that way if not for the atomic bomb. As part of a nationwide search for uranium, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) established a very generous fixed price as an incentive for miners. A down-on-his-luck Texan named Charlie Steen discovered a big strike just south of Moab in an area the AEC geologists had declared "barren of possibilities." Steen, his wife and 4 sons went from living in a tiny tar-paper shack where they had been barely subsisting day-to-day into a mansion on a hill which cost $250,000 (over $1,300,000 in 2017 dollars) to build. The mansion included an in-ground pool, green-house and servant's quarters. He named his mine Mi Vida (my life) and before it was closed, over $100 million of uranium was pulled from it, making the Steen's very rich. It also led to a huge increase of Moab residents which overnight became "The Uranium Capital of the World." The town owes much to Charlie Steen as he donated most of the money for the hospital and donated money and land he purchased for the building of schools and churches.

The mansion he built in 1953 still stands and has been converted into a restaurant called The Sunset Grill. I kind of wish we had dined there as the view overlooking the hills and town is supposed to be spectacular, but we didn't. It was only open between 5:00pm and 9:00pm and we were always busy doing something at that time or were real tired after a full day and just wanted to chill in the room with pizza delivered. Plus it's pretty darn expensive (as in $40 - $50 per person) and the food is stuff like Wild Mushrooms Vol au Vent, Escargot Kathleen, and Raspberry Duck with basmati rice. Not only did we heathens not know what that stuff is, with food like that, we didn't know if they would even let us in wearing jeans or shorts and t-shirts, the only kind of clothes we had brought.

Between 1980 and 1990, the population of Moab doubled as entrepreneurs bought surplus army rafts and converted them to river-running boats and surplus Army 4-wheel-drive Hummers which were converted for back-country and rock climbing adventures. From 1995 through 1999, the population doubled again as mountain biking the slick rock trails became hugely popular. Today, over 5,225 souls call Moab home.

The Bowen Motel didn't have a "free" breakfast so after Mike was finally ready for the day, we walked next door to a little cafĂ© called Love Muffin. It was better than expected. Good blueberry muffins and a really good cup of coffee. Good enough that we agreed to eat breakfast there again the next day.

Colorado River along Scenic Byway 128
With water bottles full, camera gear strapped on, a handheld GPS, light jackets and hiking shoes on our feet, we set off northwest through town on Hwy 191 for 2 miles and turned northeast on Utah Scenic Byway 128. Scenic is a good word for this road as it winds its way through red rock canyons following the Colorado River. Several times we stopped in pullouts to walk around and take pictures. Just 3 miles traveling on Byway 128 brought us to our destination, the Negro Bill Canyon trailhead. The 3-mile moderately difficult trail is considered to be one of Utah's most pleasant day hikes. It parallels a beautiful little year-round creek beneath high cliffs and ends up at Morning Glory Arch in the northern end of the Sand Flats Recreation Area. The canyon was named in the 1800's for African American pioneer William Granstaff who grazed his cattle there. Although now politically incorrect, it has retained its name for historical reasons.

Trailhead information sign
Turning into the paved parking lot, we were surprised to find nobody there. After grabbing our hiking sticks and making sure we had everything we needed, we marked our position on the GPS, set it to drop breadcrumbs, read the trail information sign and headed out. Right out of the gate, there's a stretch of uphill going in an open, rocky area. With no trees for shade and even with a chill in the morning air, it got real warm real quick and it was easy to tell we did not want to be doing this in the middle of the summer! Within a few hundred yards though, we picked up the gently gurgling creek and the trees and grasses growing up on either side. The trail wasn't marked, but we had no trouble following it as it went along next to the stream. There were a couple of places where we had to cross the creek due to tall, sheer walls of rock blocking the way on one side. Mostly the water wasn't deep and we were able to take big, quick steps to keep our shoes mostly dry, but in one place we took off our shoes and socks and waded across as the water was up to our shins and too wide to jump.

Open area at the start of the trail.
About 1/3 of the way along, we entered an area where the sheer cliffs soared hundreds of feet above us on either side. We had not seen another person along the trail. We felt very small, totally alone in the world, and the silence was deafening. We didn't talk much and when we did, it was almost in whispers. We took breaks every few hundred yards, not because we actually needed it, but because we wanted to sit and try to take it all in. No people, no rustling animals, no birds, not even an airplane flew overhead to disturb our reverie. It was one of those times which are hard to explain to others, but you will fondly recall for the rest of your life. It made me wish I was a poet.

After another 1/2 mile or so, we came to a place where we had difficulty proceeding due to another stretch of high stone walls so we decided to cross over to the other side of the stream. After walking a few feet through some tall grass, we were surprised to run into a Park Ranger squatted on the ground working on some steps cut into a section of the trail which rose about 12 feet. We stopped to talk and he told us a recent heavy rain has caused the creek to rise high enough that it washed away the cut tree limbs placed as footsteps to help people get up the steep incline. He had a saw, hammer and shovel and was replacing the steps. He said we were the first people he had seen since another ranger had dropped him off that morning. "Isn't this beautiful?" he asked. "I really do love my job." We made it up the slick incline by holding onto tree limbs and he told us to watch out for a spot a little ways on where the trail had been washed out. "Just keep going and you'll be able to pick it up again a ways on."

Along the trail
We came to a point where we had to climb over and crawl through a bunch of boulders to keep going. There was still no trail markers and we had to stop, study and backtrack a couple of times before we made it through. It was hard enough to be a bit challenging, but not so bad that we got lost or needed a break afterwards.

We had gone several hundred yards beyond "the boulders" when we heard a noise behind us. The noise quickly got closer until we saw an absolutely beautiful girl jogging on the trail toward us. Right behind her was a huge German Shepherd dog. Wearing black-and-gold skin-tight jogging pants, black shoes, body-hugging sleeveless white top, a multi-colored sweat band around her head and her pony-tailed blond hair swinging to-and-fro, this absolute vision of loveliness who could easily have been a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model simply said, "On your left" as she ran past us. The dog didn't say anything and neither did we as she went around a curve and out of sight. Mike and I looked at each other for a few wordless seconds with what I'm sure were amusing looks of extreme surprise and shock. After we found our voices:

Mike: "Where'd she come from?"
Me: "She was jogging this thing!"
Mike: "How'd she get through those boulders?"
Me: "Don't know but with a body like that, she must be a triathlete."
Mike: "Probably. Looked like she has about 0% body fat."
Me: "She was fit, that's for sure."
Mike: "I guess she'll be coming back. I'll say hi and maybe she'll stop and talk."
Me: "Right. We're like 3 times her age and hundred dollar bills are not exactly falling out of our pockets. Besides, did you see what she had in her right hand?"
Mike: "No. What?"
Me: "Looked like a can of mace or pepper spray."
Mike: "So?"
Me: "So she would most likely spray your ass and that dog will have your gonads for his mid-morning snack."
Mike: "Whatever... I sure am looking forward to her coming back."

About 30 minutes later, she did. Still jogging, still gorgeous, still not sweating, still holding that little can of pepper spray and still accompanied by that big dog. Mike and I got in a single file on one side of the trail and this time as she passed by, she gave us a quick look, a Mona Lisa smile and said "Hi" as she quickly passed by. I think we both fell in love with her a little bit right then. We didn't say it, but I'm sure we were both thinking the same thing - oh to be young again. And then she was gone.

The stream along the trail
Eventually we came to a large open area and there about 100 yards in front of us was Morning Glory Arch and the end of the trail. With a span of 243 feet, it is the 6th longest natural rock span in the United States and we were standing there looking at it. Before proceeding through the tree's and bushes to the arch, we found a large flat-topped rock, climbed up and sat down resting and looking around, marveling at the beauty which surrounded us. Mike went on ahead and I stayed behind, lost in my own thoughts and feeling a desire to spend a little time alone in this beautiful, isolated spot. On the one hand we still had to make it back to the trailhead, but on the other hand it felt like the end of a wondrous adventure. Thornton Wilder said, "We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures" and in the moment, I was keenly aware of the treasure I was experiencing.

Me on the trail
About an hour later, we began the hike back and somehow lost our way at the washed out spot the Ranger had warned us about. When I noticed I didn't recognize where we  were at, I looked at the GPS and found we had gotten about 100 yards down a side trail. We followed the barely visible trail, probably just an animal trail, for a way to see where it took us, but it ended in a little grove of trees and thick brush we couldn't get through so we backtracked until we found a place where we could cut over and get back to the right trail. We arrived at the place where the ranger was and found he had completed his repair work. Since it was now later in the morning, we thought we would surely encounter other hikers, but it wasn't until we arrived within a quarter mile of the trailhead that we ran into a group of other people. Once we passed them, we found a good number of folks hiking in.

When we arrived at the parking lot, it was almost full of cars, people were milling around all over the place and a school bus had pulled in and was off-loading about 30 laughing, boisterous, loud teenagers accompanied by 3 adults. Don't get me wrong, I like to see young folks all happy and having a good time, but my relief at not having shared the trail with all these yo-yo's destroying the peace and tranquility cannot be overstated.

Morning Glory Arch at the end of the trail
After a quick trip to the restroom, we dumped our stuff in the truck, grabbed a fresh, cold bottle of water from the ice chest on the back floorboard and headed a few miles further up Scenic Byway 128 to our next stop at a ranch where at least 9 movies and TV shows have been filmed. As they say in show business though, that's a story for another day.

(Go to part 1 here)